9.5 Theses: Art and Politics – Chapters Three, Four and Five

Temporary Art Review is pleased to announce a new column on our site: BOOK CLUB.

For the first edition of BOOK CLUB we will review Ben Davis’s 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Starting in October, a new post will be published every two weeks focused on each section of the book. For each section, Temporary contributors will initiate a discussion through the comments in the post and anyone may continue the discussion by contributing their own comments and observations on the text.








About the Book
In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis takes on a broad array of contemporary art’s most persistent debates: How does creative labor fit into the economy? Is art merging with fashion and entertainment? What can we expect from political art? Davis argues that returning class to the center of discussion can play a vital role in tackling the challenges that visual art faces today, including the biggest challenge of all—how to maintain faith in art itself in a dysfunctional world.

9.5 Theses on Art and Class may be purchased directly from the nonprofit publisher Haymarket Books, a project of the Center for Economic Research and Social Change.

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BOOK CLUB Schedule
October 7: Art and Class – Chapters One and Two
October 21: Art and Politics – Chapters Three, Four and Five
November 4: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Six, Seven and Eight
November 18: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Nine and Ten
December 2: Art and Theory – Chapters Eleven through Fourteen
December 16: Conclusions – Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen

We look forward to the discussions!


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  1. James McAnally

    These chapters had the inverse effect on making me more assured that the only way forward is through small moment of collectivity (as seen in Davis’s description of anarchist-leaning thought rather than his own subset of Marxism). While arguing that political art has essentially no impact and our only hope is through broad-scale political organizing, Davis manages to ignore personal transformation as essentially political. Sure, little to no artistic action can be positively documented to have had a transformative impact on the political climate of a nation, but could he claim that political art cannot shift the political will of a person? Art becomes social predominantly through the personal and, I would argue, would enter the political consciousness in much the same way.

  2. Lauren Adams

    I want to begin with looking at chapter 3, ‘What Good is Political Art in Times Like These?’ In this chapter, Davis is setting up the idea that “Not even the most committed art practice can, on its own, be a substitute for the simple act of being politically involved as an organizer and an activist” (p. 48). It is in chapter 5 that Davis specifically challenges the mis-use of the critical platform of ‘aesthetic politics’, so in chapter 3, we see him taking on art history’s place in setting up how artists have idealized and become idealized.

    Davis’ examples of Tatlin, Picasso, and Oiticica are meant to shatter the mythic narratives of these artists’ famous works (Monument to the Third International, Guernica, and Tropicália, respectively). Davis is right to exhume these artists and their works. We need to be careful about the ways in which we idealize our shared pasts. We ought not quote without understanding context. His method of undercutting their idealistic notions of unity, progress, and revolt in horrors of war, however, somehow turns their contributions into glossy and unstable syrup: with each artist, he ends on an ironic note of how their work achieved a limited function (Picasso’s membership in the communist party being Davis’ example of how an artist takes part in a political movement at odds with the content or outcome of the artwork politically).

    Reading Davis is like taking bad medicine: I cannot disagree with much of his conclusion, but the taste is sour and omits so much. I would posit that much of the meanings attendant with making and consuming art has very little to do with direct political action and that looking to that alone does more harm than good. It appears that Davis’ criteria of judgement for the effectiveness of art in the political arena relies on how artists directly transform political discussion. Davis’ scope is limited here: The criticism of how effective these artists are in affecting political change relies on the artists making concerted, repeated and public attempts to use their art as a direct political tool. I would argue that none of the artists mentioned (Wooloo Productions and Thomas Hirshhorn included — reading interviews with Hirshhorn affirms this) aggressively state that their work should result in direct political action. Is Davis possibly utilizing a false premise?

    My frustrations with Davis will not be resolved in this chapter, or in this blog comment. He is right to quote Martha Rosler about the importance of organizing. Davis’ next chapter on the limits of collectivity as an artmaking strategy is an interesting one that I will come back to.

    What is at stake here is the assumption that art that aims to be political must have some direct political outcome. I would like to put this out there: Radicalization through the making and consumption of artworks that subvert dominant paradigms, through formal or political/social means, is one of the primary functions of art. Sure, it may not result in the passing of a bill through Congress, but artworks function on a different plane. The sublime grandeur of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the chaotic overload of Hirshhorn’s public installations are not meant to make direct appeals to the public the way a demonstration or presidential candidate might. They are meant to function as provocative spaces for contemplation, discussion, and a kind of quiet change that has no direct equivalent in the way Davis sketches politics.

    What I’m talking about is culture and the social. These things can be political — I think everything can have a political dimension — the important context here being the individual’s role in making and consuming art. As an educator and sometimes public art facilitator/maker, I’ve seen this radicalizing effect in my students and in members of my audience. The individual can be transformed. The individual can be transformative. I resist any prerequisite of direct political change through art as a condition for a work to be political in essence. I think we start with ourselves, and the countless examples of how the self has been transformed through art, and how that changed self moves into the world and in a chorus of resistance, can change others. . . that is political, too. To quote Joseph Mashek writing in his essay Carpet Paradigm, quoting Arts Magazine Editor Richard Martin, “Art has spiritual value, not because it can be used to escape sublunary reality but because in displacing only a little of the world it can implicate the world so generally.”

  3. "Michael" Cunningham

    I witnessed Occupy Wall Street, the Madison Wisconsin protests and the early days of Idle No More much as I witness most contemporary art – as pictures, comments and links to articles on my Twitter feed. These movements would not fair well under Davis’ critique. Just like political action via artistic practice, political action via political action doesn’t seem to bring about very much concrete change. But I do hope and even believe that there are thoughts and people influenced by these events that will eventually make a difference, even if only a small one, that incorporates the principles of these movements into our larger society. I also hope and believe that political action via art can do the same.

  4. Sarrita Hunn

    “People are back in the streets, occupying public space, building temporary oppositional communities, and actively rooting around for models of organization. And art, at least according to the vaporous abstractions of theory, still holds out the potential to be an alternative of some kind.”(51)

    In this chapter, Davis lays out the ways in which collective (art, in particular) activity could be understood as a particular anti-capitalism position: “to pump the idea of collective artistic labor up with all the dignity of a full-blown alternative politics.”(52) Mentioning many texts and collectives as examples, he lays out distinction characteristics of collective activity such as the de-emphasis of ownership, authorship and individualism and an emphasis on community, generosity and play. Laying out a Modernist history of this trajectory, he quotes extensively from “Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination After 1945” by Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, whose thesis can summarized: “Modernist collectivism…was the first real effort to develop a sustained alternative to commodified social life by cultural means…Modernist artists understood the collectivization of their professional roles, functions, and identities to the be the expression of and, at best, a realization of the promise and/or pitfalls of social, political, and technological progress.”(54-55) Davis goes on, however, to criticize this reading – placing artists in with “both utopians and anarchists [who] ultimately locate politics with an enlightened minority, either with visionaries who impose a plan from above or with autonomous community of like-minded people.” This, he says, he at odds with true “self-emancipation of the working class itself…”(57) Further citing examples from “Collectivism After Modernism” including the Situationist International, Temporary Autonomous Zones, DIY punk zines, and the concept of a “global street party” – Davis challenges these attempts as the “perfect recipe for displacing the goal of struggle from enduring material change that could benefit large numbers of people to a spectacle that is purely for the amusement of those who take part.”(61) I can certainly sympathize with this cynicism having experience the carnival-like spectacle that was the San Francisco Iraq War protests – massive street parties where families rode in from the suburbs to ignore the homeless people in their way and chant along with everyone else – and I agree that “The attempt to reframe political questions as artistic ones”(61) is problematic at best – and requires, as James said in an earlier comment, to move away from the k-hole that is dwelling on defining “what art is.” – but as far as I know, the sphere of art IS (at least one of) the last holds out for a real alternative (to our current commodified reality) and so to actually come up with new imaginative possibilities, we got work with what we got.

  5. Sarrita Hunn

    “Increasingly it seems that politics in the art world is largely a politics of envy and guilt, or of self-interest generalized in the name of a narrowly conceived and privileged form of autonomy, and that artistic “critique” most often serves not to reveal but to distance these economic conditions and our investment in them.”

    “1% Art: Who are the patrons of contemporary art today?” by Andrea Fraser

  6. Jessica

    I really respond to Lauren’s statement above that artworks function on a different plane, and that an individual can be changed. I do believe that political change happens on a personal level and it happens slowly, but I suppose the question Davis is posing is how to you effect a lot of people, and how can that message be heard clearly? Subtly is often lost. However, those quiet moments of contemplation are often the ones that have a lasting presence with me, personally. It seems like Davis doesn’t value an aesthetic experience or “pathos”, or at least sees it as not having the same kind of power that a political action can have.

    He seems rather flippant in his description of the “Yippies” trying to levitate the pentagon at the end of Chapter 5, making the point that this action doesn’t “offer a cogent answer to the questions of the moment.” But, when I read that description, I get the sense of the deliriousness of that moment. Poetic political actions may not sign a bill into law immediately, but it can have a lasting effect on public opinion throughout history.

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